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Interview: Ayman Mohyeldin

Ayman Mohyeldin, formerly of NBC and CNN and now with Al Jazeera English, is an American who was born in Cairo and raised in the Mideast. He spoke with PRWeek about his experiences covering news here and abroad.

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PRWeek: You grew up in the Middle East?

Mohyeldin: I was born in Egypt and I lived in Jordan as well. I lived in Iraq a couple of years after the war, and have been pretty much on assignment throughout the Middle East. So when Al Jazeera English started up, I ended up in the DC broadcast center. But every now and then, just because of my experience in the region, I occasionally come back to do stories, to fill in for people on leave, or to do specific stories -- things like that.

PRWeek: Where did you start your career?

Mohyeldin: I started off working at NBC News in Washington. I started out as a desk assistant, which is as entry level as you could possibly get, but was a great experience because you could really cut your teeth in working in that kind of news environment. Then, unfortunately, September 11 happened, and there was a real shortage of people with language skills or expertise in the Middle East. Just because of my language skills and the timing, so to speak, I got a lot of experience. I was thrown into a mix of things that normally desk assistants at my level would not have gotten. I started working on some big pieces that had to do with investigating 9-11 and all kinds of international terrorist connections and things like that.

PRWeek: You helped do research?

I was doing translation mostly, but I was also developing themes or threads to stories that either had some Middle East connection to them or some type of Arabic language skills required. So it was an unbelievable experience at a really young age. This was when the Iraq war was building up and all the networks were anticipating something happening, so they were recruiting people with Middle East experience. I knew some people at CNN and got picked up by CNN and got shipped off to Iraq shortly after the invasion and spent three years there, covering the war and the aftermath.

PRWeek: Did you do on-air reports or were you the producer that sets them up?

Mohyeldin: With CNN I was officially producer, but just because of the limitations we sometimes had I would report breaking news. I got a lot of unique experiences. I was the only pool producer in the courtroom on the day that Saddam was brought out and handed over to the Iraqi court by the Americans. I was the first reporter at the scene where there was the explosion that killed UN commissioner Sergio Vieira de Mello.

PRWeek: Your reports are in English, but do you use your Arabic a lot for interviews?

Ayman Mohyeldin: In the US, all of my reports and news gathering are done in English, but in the Mideast, I do a lot of actual news gathering in Arabic.

PRWeek: With the different Arabic dialects of different countries, do you sometimes have trouble communicating?

Mohyeldin: I sometimes have a hard time understanding the big Gulf Arabic accents, and sometimes the West African, Moroccan, and Algerian ones. But for the most part, because everyone generally knows classical Arabic, it's easy to communicate.

PRWeek: Do you end up covering a wide range of topics?

Mohyeldin: Yes. I was [in Doha recently] covering Gaza and the BBC reporter, Alan Johnson, who's been kidnapped. It just really depends on whatever story there is.

I'd worked in Jerusalem before for CNN, so it's natural to come back and cover some of these recent developments.

PRWeek: How do you feel about Al Jazeera English not being made available on US cable channels?

Mohyeldin: As an American, I can tell you it's saddening to see that Al Jazeera is not being carried in the US.

Ironically, in the run-up to our launch, a lot of media came and did stories about Al Jazeera, and sometimes in their reporting they missed the mark in saying [it] was the mouthpiece of so and so. Very few actually went to cable companies to ask, "Why is this a viewpoint you do not want Americans to hear?"

PRWeek: When you say you're with Al Jazeera, what type of reaction do you get?

Mohyeldin: There's certainly a spectrum of opinions. I think we are making headway in the US in that people are opening up to the notion of what Al Jazeera is about. One way I think our PR folks measure that is through Internet hits and a lot of the Web-based viewership is from North America. My experience in the US has been a few different responses. When you speak to government officials or people in DC, they know who Al Jazeera is. So people who are reluctant to speak to Al Jazeera are deliberately choosing not to speak to it for what they perceive to be its reputation. They just don't want to associate themselves with it. But at the same time, in the last couple of months, especially since the English service has been on the air, we've seen a noticeable shift in that we have congress members that appear on our network, we have official White House spokespeople on our network. When you go out to the street or to Middle America, there is still a bit of reluctance from some people, but it's not across the entire country.

PRWeek: How open or cooperative do you find public affairs officials to be?

Mohyeldin: When you speak to government officials or people in DC, they know who Al Jazeera is. So people who are reluctant to speak to it are deliberately choosing not to [do so] for what they perceive to be its reputation.

However, especially since the English service has been on the air, we've seen a noticeable shift, in that we now have Congressmen [and] official White House spokespeople on our network. When you go out to the street or to middle America, there is still a bit of reluctance from some people, though it's not across the entire country.

PRWeek: What about reaction to Al Jazeera in other countries?

Mohyeldin: In the Middle East, everyone knows what Al Jazeera is, so government officials, through official or unofficial channels, are eager to talk to us.

It's easier when you say "Al Jazeera" to get people to talk. It's just very rare that they don't want to talk to you.


PRWeek: Was that the same for you at CNN?
Mohyeldin: When I used to work in the Middle East at CNN, people were always suspicious of CNN, though well-recognized groups were always willing to speak with us. But I think when you say Al Jazeera, that trumps any other network in the Middle East. It's easier to get people to talk, especially on the street and with the people. It's just very rare that they don't want to talk to you. There's the exception of Israel, though, where people will say they don't want to talk to us because we're Al Jazeera.


PRWeek: US officials say often say the media doesn't tell the ‘full story' of what happens in, say, Iraq. Is that fair?

Mohyeldin: Western media, if I can use that phrase, definitely committed a lot of resources to covering Iraq. The question is, what kind of viewpoints, what kind of access, did a lot of these people have? Certainly a lot of them risked their lives and by no means would I take away from that. But sometimes there are certain cultural, linguistic themes that by sheer default it's difficult for someone to pick up unless you're from that part of the world. As an analogy, when Hurricane Katrina happened in the US, a lot of international media was really shocked about the poverty they were seeing in the US and trying to understand how it happened. A lot of American media at the same time was picking up on themes that most international media probably didn't pick up on as early as they did -- things like race relations. The same thing can be said of the Middle East. A lot of reporters who come here, they have experience in the Middle East, but a lot of times they can't pick up on the nuances of the cultures, the tensions that exist between various groups, and the dynamics between classes and ethnic backgrounds and things like that.

PRWeek: They lack the context?

Mohyeldin: Exactly. They may not have put the story in the context of past historical perspective that is the driving force behind many of the things that happen in this region. To them, the Iraq war started when President Bush decided to invade Iraq. But for Iraqis the historical perspective of foreigners coming to invade their country dates back centuries.

PRWeek: How well do people in the Middle East understand the US?

Mohyeldin: I think the one thing that is safe to say is that people in the Arab world make a distinction between Americans and American foreign policy. There's a huge fascination and appreciation for American culture. You don't have to be Einstein to know how popular American movies and pop culture is in this part of the world. But there's also a lot of rejection of American foreign policy in the region. Are people aware of what life is like in America? To a certain degree, no, they aren't. They don't know what average Americans go through on a daily basis, they don't know what life is like for Americans in middle America, and the struggles and challenges they have in their daily life. So there is a huge role that channels like Al Jazeera can play, which is really to open America to the rest of the world. That's what we're trying to do at Al Jazeera English, to go beyond simply Washington, New York, and Los Angeles.

PRWeek: In Iraq or other countries, how safe do you feel?

Mohyeldin: Very few people in Iraq can stay safe because the violence has become so indiscriminate. When I first got to Iraq I kind of felt comfortable. I think most people felt comfortable right after the war; Western journalists were traveling around the country with no or very little security. But over time as that situation got worse, what ended up happening was that Western journalist stopped going out. Then it got so that nothing could buy you any kind of cover, whether you were Sunni or Shia, Arab speaking or non-Arab speaking. In the rest of the Arab world, security is sometimes in the back of your mind. But in Gaza I feel comfortable going out on my own. In Egypt I don't have that same sticking-out problem that maybe other western journalists have.

PRWeek: Do you enjoy the work?

Mohyeldin: On a personal level, it's very fun. My personal experience is that I've grown up with a foot in both worlds. Before I even got into media, I always felt that I had to be something of an ambassador of both cultures and both regions, so when I'd go back to the Middle East people would ask me about life in the US, and when I'd come to the US, people would have these stereotypes about what it's like to be Muslim or Arab. Here's a story I like to tell about Iraq: When I arrived in Iraq in summer of 2003, after Saddam's two children were killed, I was going up to interview the commander of the unit that was engaged in the fight that killed them. We were approaching the palace where the Americans were at the time, and the Americans were trying to train what they called at the time Iraqi Civil Defense Corps. They were manning the checkpoint out there and showing Iraqis how to search cars and people and what to look for. I was walking up the hill and they were coming down the hill to search our cars and they were turning around and calling the Iraqis to come down with them. The Americans were turning around saying, ‘Yo dawgs, come help us out.' And in the US, if you call someone ‘dawg,' it's a term of endearment; you're buddies. The Iraqi soldiers walking down were cursing in Arabic saying, ‘Why are they calling us dogs?' For me, it captured the larger problem of what was happening in Iraq.

Name: Ayman Mohyeldin

Outlet: Al Jazeera English

Title: Senior producer

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This article was first published on PR Week USA

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